Interior of classroom in elementary school

Interior of classroom in elementary school. Row of empty desks are in illuminated room.

The dramatic drop in enrollment amid COVID this past year at Colorado public schools was startling and disconcerting. Even a bit eerie — as if thousands of children simply had vanished.

As The Gazette reported earlier this year, overall enrollment at all 178 Colorado school districts dropped in 2020 — the first time in decades — according to Colorado Department of Education data. In its annual count, the department had tallied a total of 883,199 students attending preschool through grade 12 in the state. That was 30,024 fewer than the previous year’s count — a drop of 3.3% for all grades. The lower elementary grades saw even bigger declines, with pre-K enrollment dropping by 24%.

Colorado’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, took a hit that exceeded the state average. And district officials have projected a total decline in enrollment of 6% by 2025. That’s nearly double the rate of decrease the district had predicted before COVID.

The kids haven’t vanished, of course. Rather, faced with a prolonged absence from in-person learning —and having to “remote” learn from home instead for the better part of a year in some school districts — some parents shifted gears. Those who could afford it put their kids in parochial or private school. Some families just kept kids home. A number of families decided that as long as their kids were going to be stuck in cyberspace for a while, they might as well get the real thing rather than the makeshift version cobbled together by school districts. So, they enrolled their children in long-standing online-learning programs. And those are just some of the scenarios that explain where kids went.

Now, new research confirms how remote learning chased off kids. The findings, released Saturday by Stanford University researchers and reported by education news service Chalkbeat, makes clear just how unpopular remote classrooms were as a response to COVID, particularly for children in early-elementary grades. Parents seemed to realize online education often proved futile for that age group.

Kindergarten enrollment dropped an estimated 3% to 4%, according to the research findings. Older elementary school grade levels averaged a 1% decrease in enrollment. Fully virtual plans may have also contributed to more absences among younger students. Remote-only instruction hurt public school enrollment more in school districts that served rural communities and higher concentrations of Hispanic students, the research found.

While it’s a good thing in itself that the parents of the children who left were able to find what they felt were viable alternatives, they shouldn’t have had to flee their former schools in the first place. At least, not after the initial lockdown (when, understandably, schools and all other public institutions still were struggling to respond to COVID). After that initial phase of the pandemic, kids whose families wanted to return, should have been allowed to do so.

First of all, the risk turned out to be minimal. As we noted here repeatedly during Colorado’s bout with COVID, hard data consistently has shown that pre-teens and teens are less likely to catch and transmit the virus and also suffer far less serious symptoms if they do catch it.

Meanwhile, keeping kids home exacted a high price. As has been widely reported, children’s mental health has suffered. An unprecedented declaration by Children’s Hospital Colorado in May — alerting the public to “a pediatric mental health state of emergency” for the state’s young people — came as a wakeup call.

“We’re overrun with kids attempting suicide and suffering from other forms of major mental health illness,” hospital President Jena Hausmann announced. The excruciating isolation was pushing our kids to the brink. Children had become collateral damage in our war against COVID.

That some parents — statistically, far more than a blip on the curve — where able to help their kids avoid that fate by leaving public schools is admirable but unfair. Unfair to them because of the disruption in their kids’ lives in leaving familiar teachers and friends. Unfair to them also because they had to dig into their savings to pay for alternative education — after already having ponied up the taxes they must pay for their local public schools.

It’s unfair, to the kids left behind, too. The had to endure the social isolation as well as the myriad academic deficiencies of remote learning. The kids who escaped — about 300,000 nationwide, according to the Stanford research — were the envy for those who remained in the virtual purgatory of remote learning.

Sending children to class during much of the pandemic would have exposed them to very little risk. Keep them home posed far greater risks. As it turned out, they were risks a lot of parents weren’t willing to take.